- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

BALTIMORE — After picking the No. 3 post position for Hemingway’s Key in today’s 131st running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, trainer Nick Zito said, “Three’s our lucky number. Babe Ruth had number three, too.”

As part of the thoroughbred racing scene for more than 30 years, Zito has worked for a few bosses. But only one is The Boss. That would be George Steinbrenner, the tempestuous, demanding and somewhat impatient owner of the New York Yankees.

Hemingway’s Key is the latest product from Steinbrenner’s Kinsman Stables, located near Ocala, Fla., with which Zito has worked. A 30-1 shot in the Preakness opening line, the colt has lost all four starts as a 3-year-old, finishing no better than sixth, after winning two straight races at the end of last year. Zito naturally believes he has a chance, but to hear him tell it, not much of one.

“If you don’t run, you can’t even lose,” he said. “That’s why we’re running. Maybe we’re gonna lose again.”

And if that wasn’t enough, he also called his horse an “underachiever.”

Great. Everyone knows what Steinbrenner thinks of underachievers. What happens if Hemingway’s Key runs another poor race? Does he become a pony ride at a grandchild’s birthday party, or something even worse?

“It’s not as bad as people think, training a horse for George Steinbrenner,” Zito said.

Zito laughed, because he always gets questions about working for Steinbrenner. He swears what he says is true.

“I have a great relationship with George,” he said. “A terrific relationship. He’s done a lot of nice things over the years. I’ve had a long friendship with him. It’s really great. I never get any pressure.”

Among the five horses Zito saddled in last year’s Kentucky Derby was Bellamy Road, a Steinbrenner horse and the favorite. But he finished eighth, and it was later revealed he had a foot injury. Earlier this month, Zito was relieved of his Bellamy Road training duties.

The decision appears not to have been made by Steinbrenner but by Kinsman manager Edward Sexton, who took over as trainer himself.

“Nothing against Nick Zito, who did nothing wrong and who is a great trainer, and nothing against any trainer, but I know the horse better than anybody,” Sexton said at the time.

That’s the way it goes in the racing game. Zito — a low-keyed, but tough, New York born-and-raised kind of guy who grew up near Belmont Park in Queens — could handle it with no hard feelings.

“He likes to win like everybody else,” he said. “I wish I had 10 George Steinbrenners.”

Some might consider that to be an alarming prospect. But not Zito, who met Steinbrenner years ago in Florida. Zito also trains horses for University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino and is friends with Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells. So he is accustomed to dealing with prickly types from other sports.

Zito, 58, has won the Kentucky Derby twice. He won the Preakness in 1996 with Louis Quatorze and the 2004 Belmont, ruining Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown bid with a long shot, Birdstone. He was elected to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2005.

But superior qualifications have never kept Steinbrenner from meddling in Yankees matters, but this is far less an area of expertise. As Dirty Harry once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Even Steinbrenner, apparently.

“He’s the principal owner of the Yankees,” Zito said. “That’s his main concern. Horses are his love, his passion, his family’s passion now, and it’s a little different [from baseball].”

Another Hall of Famer who has trained Steinbrenner’s horses, D. Wayne Lukas, unwittingly noted such a difference. Last year he was quoted as saying of The Boss, “He’s a typical owner. When the horse is not any good, he doesn’t bother you. When the horse is good, he wants to be in the middle of it.”

Steinbrenner keeping quiet when things don’t go well is certainly a change from Baseball George. Then again, it’s hard to use the media to light a fire under an athlete when that athlete can’t even turn the pages of a newspaper, much less read it. And a trainer, who has more than one employer, just might tell a whinnying owner to stick his head in a bucket of oats.

“I always got along great with [Steinbrenner],” Lukas said. “He’s impulsive, he reacts, but I never had a problem with him.”

Zito said conversations with Steinbrenner are pretty straightforward: “How are you? How’s the horse? Good luck. That’s it,” Zito said.

On Wednesday, he was asked how often the two speak.

“Not often,” he said. “He’s busy. I should give him a call. You’re right, I should give him a call tomorrow. Thanks for reminding me.”

In racing at least, it seems pretty clear who’s the Boss.

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